Butler County Times Gazette
  • Mike Loftus: Sochi Games may be NHL fans’ last Olympic treat

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  • So here we go — perhaps for the last time.
    We know most NHL owners haven’t liked closing down their league for 2 ½ weeks every four years to allow most of their best players to compete in the Olympics, and unless something changes their minds between the first two games in Sochi, Russia, and the gold-medal game Feb. 23, you can bet they’ll set their jaws and dig in their heels over the 2016 Games in Seoul, South Korea.
    Given the vastly different time zones in both sites, they’ll argue, even the league’s most loyal fans can’t watch the Games as they happen — at least, not those in North America, where all the NHL teams are — so why would anyone think Olympics will bring in new fans? There’s also the possibility of star players getting hurt, the lost opportunity to attract more of the casual sports fans’ attention (i.e., the NFL is dark, and MLB will just be getting into spring training), etc., and so on.
    That’s a management-labor fight for another day, though. It’s much more fun to talk about the fight for medals — although it is a little difficult not to worry.
    What does the extra travel and competition do, for instance, to the Bruins, who sent five players to Sochi?
    As great as it was to see captain Zdeno Chara and his underdog Slovaks win a bronze medal at Vancouver in 2010, what kind of toll did seven intense games (23:26 average ice time) take when he returned to Boston for the stretch drive and playoffs? What if Tuukka Rask is Finland’s No. 1 goalie, and keeps the job? That’s a minimum of four more games, and he’s already played 43 this year, with a compressed March-April schedule and the playoffs ahead. How much fuel will be left in his tank?
    The good news is that, with the exception of Chara and Slovakia, the B’s in the tournament all play for exceedingly deep teams. David Krejci (Czech Republic) and Loui Eriksson (Sweden) averaged a reasonable 16 minutes four years ago in Vancouver, and gold medalist Patrice Bergeron played only 6:27 per game for Canada. How much Rask plays remains to be seen, but the Finns seem solid, and besides Canada, their preliminary-round opponents (Austria, Norway), shouldn’t overwork him.
    Something unique to these Games, more than others since the NHL began participating in 1998, is the absence of a local rooting interest. There are no Bruins on Team USA’s roster or staff, nor are there any South Shore products. That’s a first.
    The ’98 and 2002 (silver medal) teams both had former Thayer Academy linemates Tony Amonte (Hingham) and Jeremy Roenick (Marshfield). Mike Sullivan (Marshfield) was an assistant coach in ’06, and the 2010 team that lost a classic, albeit heartbreaking, overtime gold-medal game to Canada had Ryan Whitney (Scituate) on the roster, and Scott Gordon (Easton) on the bench, assisting Ron Wilson.
    Page 2 of 2 - USA Hockey brought in a new staff this year, perhaps because the tournament went from an NHL-sized surface in Vancouver to a bigger European sheet in Russia. But they somehow managed to leave Milton’s Keith Yandle, one of the NHL’s best puck-moving and power-play defensemen, off the roster. And granted, there’s already a goaltending dilemma between old guard (Ryan Miller) and new (UMass produce Jonathan Quick), but there was no room for Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop (1.98 goals-against average, .933 saves percentage) as No. 3?
    Those types of arguments are much more fun to have than those about whether a 2 ½ week shutdown every four years is bad for business, so no matter how you watch it — on TV or streamed over a device, live or recorded — enjoy this chance to see NHL enemies become allies, NHL teammates temporarily become opponents, and which hockey superpower can most quickly and successfully turn an abundance of elite talent into a cohesive team
    This may be our last chance.
    Mike Loftus covers the Boston Bruins for The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, Mass.
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